Objects, types and tasting wine

Our perception of reality is actually our model of reality, based on information from our senses.

This is because the processing power needed to take in sensory information in real time and make sense of it is beyond our brain’s capacity, and would result in unacceptable delays in our response. To function properly we need fast reaction times, and these would be impossible without us doing a lot of preprocessing, constructing a model of what is around us and then adapting it with the salient details our sensory systems extract from the mass of information out there.

So how do we manage to model reality? Pre-consciously, we organize the world around us into objects or types, and then our knowledge of how these objects or types work allows us to manipulate sensory information much faster than otherwise would be possible. To do this we must have some sort of mental module that is specialized in recognizing and dealing with objects and types, and is able to store information about how any particular object usually behaves so that this information can be readily accessible when we need it.

This module must be adaptable in that it can recognize new objects and learn their behaviour. For example, we know, with a degree of accuracy how a goat or a car or a house or a tree will behave. So when we encounter a scene containing a goat, a car, a house and a tree, we immediately recognize these objects for what they are and can make sense of the scene very rapidly. Our motor actions can also adjust very rapidly because we are able to tailor them to deal with objects we have encountered before.

For example, as I write I am doing a motor action that is quite complicated, drinking a beer. Being able to pick up a glass of beer, which is continually changing mass as it is consumed, and bringing it to my lips to drink without spillage, requires a lot of precise calculations, which are primed by my knowledge of the object (the glass of beer). Some objects we simply don’t get used to though: consider a bit of lead flashing, or a piece of expanded polystyrene. The former is much heavier than our expectations, the latter much lighter, and we are continually surprised and amazed when we pick either up.

In a sense, our understanding of the world around us is prototypical. We make fast, unconscious decisions about the significance and nature of objects around us, and this helps us model reality, so we can react very fast to what is around us, and anticipate what is going to happen next. Does this relate at all to wine tasting? Perhaps. When we taste wine, there is some evidence that what we do is first make a snap decision about what sort of wine it is, and then our sensations are interpreted through this lens.

If I write a tasting note of a wine, what I am trying to do is describe what is there. But I undoubtedly interpret what I am tasting and smelling before I get to linking words with the sensations. And what I know changes the actual sensations I am experiencing. If I taste blind, in the absence of knowledge, my perceptions are likely to be somewhat purer. But what I find is that sometimes I set off on the wrong course, because the protoptypical decision I make is the wrong one. As hard as I try to remain impartial, I inevitably find myself deciding what sort of wine this is, and then interpret my sensations from this perspective.

If I taste knowing the origin of the wine, then I bring to bear the information and past experience I have concerning this type of wine. This makes purely objective descriptions of wine difficult, but not impossible. As we taste we have to remind ourselves that each of us does indeed live in a slightly different reality from each other, and some people’s realities are further from the norm than others.

A level of objectivity about sensation is still possible, but a proper understanding of the way that we experience what is out there is helpful, and chimes with our own experience of how people can have remarkably different perspectives on the same experience.

2 comments to Objects, types and tasting wine

  • Good points on the limitations of our sensory apparatus and the cognitive preconditions when it comes to tasting wines Jamie!

    I often find that blind tastings are more “objective” and “fair” in one sense. But that they are also hopelessly “unfair” in the sense that you can get led totally astray and miss all the finer nuances of a wine. It’s a bit like navigating without a map.

    The problem with tasting wine openly is that our preconceived models tend to take over (almost like with automated behavior) – directing and leading us to find all those things that we would expect to find in a wine from that region, microclimate or terroir (all according to the model that we built for that niche of reality).

    Sometimes (or every time?) the best we can hope for is probably intersubjectivity – that one or more people share our sensory observations on a special time or occasion. That’s probably why panels (on the average) are better than solitary tasters if you want to get a “fair” opinion on a wine.

    But this still leaves the question: To what extent do we (wine tasters, wine writers, wine producers…) share the same model of the world? And how much of that mode is based on what’s really out there?

    I love it when I meet people that have a slightly different model of the world and whose prototypes are somewhat different – those are the occasions when I usually learn something new about the world! ;)

  • Well said.

    Blind tasting is very difficult and takes many years of practice to tell a very nuanced wine from a good simple straightforward wine. If you see the label before the wine is in your glass you may think, ahh this will be a very clean, elegant young red burgundy that will improve with age, blind you may have a vastly different assessment.

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